Kingdom Hearts 2 – The Zero Conundrum

kh2-2016-03-07-18h24m56s402After you complete the second of the two worlds that followed Hollow Bastion, whichever world that happens to be, you’re interrupted by a sequence where your gummi ship is automatically flown back to Hollow Bastion. It seems you’ve been summoned by Merlin the Magician, but in the process he left himself so drained of magic that he was attacked by Heartless!

You scare the Heartless off just by arriving, and ask Merlin what could be such a big deal that he put his life at risk, however accidentally. I don’t feel anything short of a planet-wide emergency would have justified tractoring you across the galaxy like he did, so let’s get the disappointment over with: Merlin explains he found Pooh’s book again. So in other words, his urgent news was that he just finished unpacking? I mean, I assume he had Pooh’s magical book (which is home to living creatures!) on-hand the entire time? “I found a neat book, so I kidnapped you so hard I knocked myself practically unconscious. It’s just… such a sweet book.”

kh2-2016-03-07-18h25m54s088Merlin’s dialogue in this section is odd overall. He says “I happened to stumble across this in the Zero District.” The where? He never offers an explanation. There isn’t a location called “the Zero District” in the entire series, in any language! Fandom consensus seems to be that Merlin’s home in Traverse Town was supposed to be “the Zero District” to match the first, second and third districts of Traverse Town that we already knew about. That said, it’s hard for the player to make that sort of mental leap, both with the name trouble and the fact that Traverse Town isn’t mentioned and for that matter, isn’t even in the game. The game’s phrasing is peculiar. Merlin referring to “the Zero District” seems to imply he’s referring to Zero District of the current world. This is the kind of word choice you’d expect if we were in Traverse Town, not Hollow Bastion at all! After all, the words “Zero District” could have appeared on the screen as you moved between rooms.  I wonder if maybe, in a previous draft of the script…

You know what? Forget it. At some point, “from an earlier draft of the script, or worse,” becomes “this game is very poorly edited and I need to stop making excuses for it.” You’re going to have to decide where that line is on your own, and whether or not KH2 crosses it. For me, we’re past it, and I should stop pulling my punches.

kh2-2016-03-07-18h26m28s668This sequence is even worse edited than it seems. Let’s take a look at what we have in front of us. Either we were supposed to be in Traverse Town right now, or Merlin is (for some reason) not being clear about a location that’s supposed to be very far away. Unfortunately, no answer can be correct because Traverse Town is no longer supposed to exist. Traverse Town was made of an amalgam of broken worlds. It should have been destroyed by the process of restoring the worlds at the end of KH1! DDD will gum this up, but I feel that’s a fair reading of the situation at the time of KH2, though feel free to disagree.  From my perspective, Merlin shouldn’t be talking about it as though he were just at Traverse Town, because that should be impossible. I think the devs must have realized this problem part-way through development (it’s my best explanation for the weirdly-edited mash we’re in now), but it must have taken a while, because the only other reference to Traverse Town in the entire game is also in present tense: it’s mentioned in one of the Secret Ansem Reports, dated in the middle of CoM.

(Though the report may be talking about the idea of Traverse Town at that point. )

kh2-2016-03-07-18h27m29s772Merlin leaves to tell the Final Fantasy characters about his discovery (I respect the character consistency in that he still thinks this book is a huge honking deal that it warrants pulling everyone away from their posts. He says Pooh’s book is a relic of Hollow Bastion, weirdly enough), and Sora and Donald decide that Sora should go visit Pooh. Goofy is outright panicked about this and never explains why. If you talked to him beforehand, he mentioned that he was a little worried that you should wait for Merlin, but his response to your going into the book is shouting almost in alarm. Maybe Bill Farmer just went a little too intense with his delivery (the caption is written “Sora…” but the line is read “Sora!!”), but I have a theory as to why Goofy might be panicky, if you’re willing to hold on a moment.

(It should be said that the scene seems to imply that Sora simply rushed into Pooh’s book after Merlin left, and Goofy was shouting at him because he didn’t have a chance to make his case, but the devs broke it by adding the safe zone sequence in between the Merlin cutscene and here, which makes it impossible for Sora to have “rushed.” They’re being polite, as Merlin’s interruption made it impossible for you to save after the previous world. I wouldn’t normally fault politeness, but they punctured their plot in the process, and exposed a problem they have with writing Goofy across the entire game. We’ll get back to that just a paragraph from now.)

kh2-2016-03-07-18h29m05s700.png

You enter the 100 Acre Wood, but we won’t be here long. You enter the book and find Pooh at his home, and Pooh is so casual about seeing you again that it can only be called “in-character.” He invites Sora to join him on his “stoutness exercises,” and jumps off his log… only to be frozen in mid-air. Sora wonders what is going on, but when he touches Pooh, he’s rocketed out of the book!

Outside, you discover that Donald and Goofy have dropped the book and are calling for help. It seems they too were ambushed by the Heartless. This is why I feel Goofy was shouting earlier: he read the script again and knew the Heartless were coming. The devs have Goofy do this time and time again in KH2 to make him look wise and perceptive – remember his reaction to Mushu’s shadow? You could say that he was simply worried the Heartless might attack like they did to Merlin, but I still have to call the game to task for not having Goofy explain himself in full when that’s exactly what he normally does, and how he jumps from 0 to 100 in a single line. It’s what’s called an Idiot Ball scenario: Sora and Donald were idiots to use the book, and Goofy outright broke character by not being patient like he normally is in simply saying “The Heartless might come back.”

kh2-2016-03-07-18h29m40s553Hell, Goofy yelling before you enter the book makes it seem like he’s certain the Heartless will come back. Again, this is because he “read the script,” but let’s pretend that isn’t the case. If Goofy did feel the Heartless were going to show up, this makes him outright irresponsible for not speaking up.

You run off and fight the Heartless, which is an unremarkable fight that’s only meant to distract you while the Heartless break into Merlin’s house behind you and mess up Pooh’s book. They even claw the cover you repaired in KH1! That’s right, we’re doing the exact same page collection sidequest all over again, and there’s not a thing you can do about laziness of the writing. It’s like Arkham-verse Batman. Bruce hears a new villain announce they’re going to take over the city, and before he does anything to deal with them, he starts making plans to deal with The Riddler.

kh2-2016-03-07-18h30m10s857One question I have to ask is why the world was frozen just because Donald dropped the book. Is Pooh’s world really completely frozen by every jostle? My personal theory is that a Heartless damaged the book before Donald and Goofy even realized it was there, and that was what caused the freeze – it plays out as a slapstick scene in my head.

Sora insists on checking on Pooh, and finds the book bereft of chapters just like before. Pooh’s house remains, so Sora goes to visit and finds Pooh back on the log, but something is wrong. Pooh does not seem to recognize Sora, addressing him as “Somebody-I-Don’t-Know” (something the captions should have probably kept as a surprise until the line was delivered, by the way). When Sora tries to strike up conversation about Piglet, it seems Pooh doesn’t remember Piglet, either.

kh2-2016-03-07-18h31m09s287Okay, real talk time again. It doesn’t take a very long dive into the fandom to find that most people are driven up the wall by the fact that KH2 re-uses the 100 Acre Wood plot from KH1. I’m with you as far as the page-tearing is concerned – that’s just lazy – but when it comes to the actual plot, I feel KH2’s 100 Acre Wood pulls itself together just right. It has to do with something I was saying in KH1. 100 Acre Wood in KH1 doesn’t just represent its own bottle story, but encapsulates some of the most important themes of KH1 as a whole. It calls out to The Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh and its closing scene with Pooh and Christopher Robin to talk about the continued relevance of children’s and youth literature in an adult life, with the promise that those foundational pieces will always be there waiting for you when you come back. KH2 is going to explore that theme here in the light of KH2’s central theme of “Reunion after a long period of separation and change.” Kingdom Hearts has a hobby of stress testing the conclusions of previous games to see what they can take: in this case, we’re seeing the possibility that childhood promises might be broken. Promises play a critical role in KH2, both Sora’s promise to Kairi that he and Riku will come back, and the “Other Promise” that has been so strongly associated with Roxas. Keep an eye on these.

Sora returns to the real world to ask Merlin what he can do to help Pooh, and lucky him! Merlin has just returned! …Without any of the others he went off to find! Merlin is so scatterbrained that I expect he walked just out of view, paced in circles for five minutes and then came straight back. He explains what you already guessed: find the pages, restore the book, blah, blah. Thankfully you get a small prize for all this introductory trouble: Merlin gives you your first Summon Charm. Summon Charms are like Summon Gems: all the summoning of the original, but without the need to talk to the Fairy Godmother, or the whole “world being destroyed to create the Summon Gem” implications of the original.

kh2-2016-03-07-18h31m48s991This particular summon charm, the Baseball Charm, is not what you’d expect even in 2005. It summons Chicken Little, from Disney’s first non-Pixar 3D flop. Erm–I mean “film.” Well… it made a lot of money but no one seems to remember it fondly even though the generation that grew up with it is ten years older now and fairly vocal on the internet? Square Enix certainly didn’t know it would be grow up to be forgotten, as the film wasn’t even out when KH2 was released in Japan! Chicken Little is clearly just here in the game as marketing. Zach Braff of Scrubs fame returns to voice the character, if by “returns” you mean “the film wasn’t even out yet at the time of recording and for all we know he stepped out of one recording booth and into another.”

Summons in this game come with a serious cost: they pull energy from the same Drive Gauge as your Drives. This means every complaint I made about the meter’s slow restoration speed applies to Summons as well. Unfortunately, because the two draw from the same power supply, a player is likely to pick a favourite system. Only a rare expert is going to analyze a situation and decide: “No, this calls for a Summon, not a Drive,” or vice versa. I imagine the average player is going to pick one favourite and never use the other. Summons are definitely good, but I find them harder to justify than Drives, since Drives eventually give you mobility upgrades. Summons do level up after a while, but they only improve themselves, not Sora. At least there’s no risk of an AntiSummon…

kh2-2016-03-07-18h32m39s137Summons work as follows: your party members vanish, and the Summon replaces them. In some cases, like Chicken Little, the Summon function like a replacement party member. Chicken Little is a healer and projectile fighter and he’s very good at it. Summons also have Limits, and their Auto-Limit is put into play when they’re Summoned, whether you want it or not. These Limits will use up an entire Drive Gauge of energy instead of MP. Chicken Little’s Limit is FPS Mode, which puts you into his point of view to launch firecrackers at enemies. I don’t find it nearly as useful as his default mode (in fact, it could easily give you a bad impression of Summons in general, like it did for me in my first playthrough). Chicken Little’s regular attacks are very powerful, so FPS Mode should probably only be used once for the Journal’s sake, or maybe if you need a breather, as you can’t be harmed while it’s in play.

Summons “level up” by exhausting Drive Gauges, a feature that’s very poorly programmed. It’s very easy to earn multiple “points” by exhausting a single Drive Gauge and then immediately regenerating it by hitting a foe or collecting a Drive Orb, at which point it will immediately exhaust again and you’ll get a second point. Keep carefully juggling Drive Orbs and you’ll just keep getting experience. You might as well abuse the system like this because the alternative is just tedious.  Unfortunately, all levelling up does is increase the number of Drive Gauges that your Summons have while they’re in play, though it’s also required for a specific side-quest so you may as well get started.

Wait, hold on. I just tuned back into the plot. Sora just said that the KH1 summons came “the last time we were here.” We were in Merlin’s house the last time we got Summons but it wasn’t this house, here in Hollow Bastion. Holy shit! The early drafts were set in Traverse Town! Who edited the mess?

kh2-2016-03-07-18h33m10s365

Note that Hollow Bastion’s Battle Lv has been increased to 15, up from 8.

That finally wraps up the post-world-two events, allowing you to move on to world three, but how about a brief structural note? This incident, where Merlin brought you back to an existing world, was what KH2 likes to call a “new episode.” KH2 will normally announce these new episodes and let you choose to visit them on your own, with this being an exception. These “new episodes” typically raise the battle level of the world while you’re there, a feature I definitely like (it’s a lot more elegant than KH1’s mass upgrade, though KH2 will do that too.  And don’t get me wrong – I think KH1’s was already a good move, so this is just polish). I’m not sure why they chose to go with the TV-style terminology but it’s very appropriate to how KH2 plays out, something I’ll come back to juuuuust before the end.

Prev: Kingdom Hearts 2 – The Walls Have Eyes
Next: Kingdom Hearts 2 – Slam into the Glass


This retrospective’s screenshots come from Spazbo4’s longplay of the 2.5 HD version of Kingdom Hearts 2: Final Mix+ at World of Longplays (YouTube).

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